Jerusalem, so close, still out of reach for many Palestinians

He lives only a 20-minute drive from Jerusalem but for Palestinian Abu Bashir the city and its sacred sites might as well be a world away.

“The whole world goes to Jerusalem but we who live a few kilometres (miles) away are forbidden to enter,” says Abu Bashir, a resident of the West Bank city of Bethlehem.

A Muslim who lives in the traditional birthplace of Christ, Abu Bashir says that since Israel occupied east Jerusalem’s Islamic and Christian holy sites in the 1967 Six-Day War, Palestinian worshippers’ ties to their shrines have eroded.

The area, annexed by Israel in a move never recognised by the international community, contains Jerusalem’s ancient Old City and within its walls are the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Al-Aqsa mosque complex and the Western Wall.

The church marks the site where most Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected. The Western Wall is the holiest prayer site for Jews and the Al-Aqsa compound is among Islam’s most sacred places.

Regaining access to the Western Wall was a defining moment for Israelis during the Six-Day War, which saw the country score a stunning victory over its Arab neighbours to seize control not just of east Jerusalem but territory including the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Jewish worshippers still do not have unfettered access to holy sites of the Al-Aqsa compound, which is known to Jews as the Temple Mount after the Jewish temples that stood there in ancient times.

Jews are not allowed to pray there, although they can make visits at certain times.

For Muslims, access is complicated by Israel’s control of areas around the site.

Before the occupation Arab pilgrims travelled to the Holy City by train or flew to a defunct airport between Jerusalem and Ramallah.

Many Muslim faithful visited Jerusalem before continuing by bus or train to perform the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

In the past, “anyone who wanted to pray in Jerusalem just got in his car and never encountered any roadblocks,” says Mahmud al-Habash, an Islamic religious official in the Palestinian Authority (PA).

But since 1967, Palestinians in the occupied territories have seen their freedom of movement restricted by checks and obstacles, including Israel’s controversial separation wall.

Most of the more than 4.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip cannot visit Jerusalem today without a permit.

Older men as well as women and children are allowed to travel there for Friday prayer without permits during the holy Muslim month of Ramadan.

Christians too face restrictions.

Father Jamal Khader, director of the Latin Patriarchate seminary in Jerusalem, recalls childhood memories of holy days in Bethlehem and Jerusalem.

Today the route between the two cities, still followed by religious processions at festivals, passes through the separation wall which can only be crossed with a special permit.

There are now those who have never seen the sacred sites “except in pictures,” Father Khader says.

Nora Karmi, an Eastern Orthodox Jerusalem Christian, says that access to sites is a challenge when Christian and Jewish holy days coincide.

She has repeatedly mobilised foreign diplomats to help gain entrance for some Palestinian pilgrims to holy sites. But faced with restrictions on their movements and barriers to worship, many Palestinian Christians have preferred to emigrate.

There were some 25,000 Christian residents of Jerusalem in 1966, but there is now half that number, according to official figures.

To circumvent Israeli checkpoints on approaches to the Old City and the gates into the compound itself, some prefer a virtual pilgrimage.

Manal Dandis, a Palestinian engineer, created the Quds360 app for Muslims around the world and particularly local Palestinians.

It provides photo and video images giving a 360-degree view of the Al-Aqsa complex and its monuments.